Fort Bragg kids learn from the Bard
The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer
CAMERON — “You gotta feel it from the very beginning! Words aren’t important; it’s all in the breath! You gotta think!”
The small, dreadlocked Romeo listens, his shiny black high tops squeaking quietly against the floor.
“You gotta move!”
As the semi-circle of rapt faces look on, the instructor demonstrates, gracefully pirouetting between the star-crossed lovers.
“But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun,” he quotes effortlessly.
Romeo starts again, cautiously glancing at his mentor.
“Don’t look at me. Don’t worry about me. I’m not here.”
This is how Joseph Henderson, cofounder of Durham’s Walltown Children’s Theatre, teaches. He is soft-spoken, almost elegant, until he gets on stage, where he becomes a ball of raw, infectious energy.
He paces back and forth between the script-clutching actors, occasionally stopping to give a direction.
“Imagine he is there,” he instructs Juliet. “You have to feel the passion!”
For the second year running, Henderson is directing Shakespeare on Base, a two-week camp for children of active-duty military families at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.
This year, the camp, which is free, is being held at the Randall David Shughart Schools in Cameron. Its 57 students, ages 5 to 14, are learning dance, theater, music, and drawing and painting.
Ronald Blanks Jr., a theater major at Fayetteville State University, works as an assistant at the camp.
“These kids are so brilliant,” Blanks said, as the group sang Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” “They love this stuff. They’ll come in one day and have (the song) down by the next.”
Shakespeare on Base was born from a quote by Deborah Mullen, the wife of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen.
“I do not believe that there are many issues more important to the future of our armed forces – indeed to the future of our country – than those confronting military children today,” Mullen said in a 2011 speech.
The quote inspired Henderson. He coordinated the idea of an arts camp with Robert Hines, the president and CEO of United Way of Cumberland County, who helped provide financial backing and remains involved in the project.
Bases like Bragg have many activities for military children, Hines says, but Henderson’s camp is unique.
“The parents are stunned because they have never seen anything like it,” Hines said. “That’s what’s fun about it; [the kids] are doing something they probably never have before.”
The camp has two goals: to teach children through enriching arts programs, and to give parents with active-duty partners a brief summer respite.
“It gives [the kids] a chance to learn, to have fun and to not think about their deployed parents,” Henderson said. “You can imagine the strain of having a parent that is deployed; you can also imagine the strain of the parents left behind.
“(This) is one way for us to say to the parent that for six hours a day, they don’t have to worry; we will take care of the children.”
The camp also lets parents know they are not alone, says Karen Miller, the chief of child, youth and school services for the base.
“It’s great for families to know that the community is thinking about them,” she said. “We’re very pleased with it.”
According to the journal Pediatrics, more than 2 million children in the U.S. live in military families.
John Rose, who has three children in the camp and another at home, says the camp helps take some pressure off his wife while he takes military training courses.
“It’s been great,” Rose said. “It gives momma a break from the kiddos for a week during the summer, and they love it.”
Joseph Gilliard, the black-sneakered Romeo, is clearly enjoying his role.
“I like the acting,” Gilliard said. “You get to move around; it’s awesome.”
For Henderson, the experience has been eye-opening. He’s worked with many children in his career but says the kids on the base are different.
“They took on the military bearing right away,” he said. “There are a lot of things in Shakespeare that children on the base would be able to understand and be able to relate to much quicker, whether that’s good or bad, than children that are not living on base.”
He said he wonders, though, if any child should “relate so easily to the things of war.”
Research suggests the experience of military children takes a toll.
In a study published in Pediatrics, “Wartime Military Deployment and Increased Pediatric Mental and Behavioral Health Complaints,” researchers found behavioral and stress disorders in military children with deployed parents were nearly 20 percent higher than those whose parents were not deployed.
Henderson said military children’s experience only makes his work more important.
“Once you’re on the base and you really understand the situation of military life, then you feel greatly honored that (you) can do this,” he said. “There are kids that really need this, and it has been a privilege.”
The camp culminates in a final performance of scenes from “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Friday at 1 p.m.
If Henderson has anything to say about it, there will be passion.